I have been reading Thomas Ricks's book The Gamble. Ricks wrote one of the definitive books on the invasion of Iraq: the perfectly titled Fiasco. Ricks has a very good blog as well: ricks.foreignpolicy.com. The Gamble focuses on the Surge in Iraq and tries to explain its origins, its dynamics, and its impact. I was afraid that the book would be too much of a Patraeus promotion, but the book is better than that. It does a good job of addressing the many fathers and mothers of the Surge policy. It also explains that the decline in violence was not just about more Americans in Iraq, but a new counter-insurgency policy AND fortuitous circumstances--the Awakening and Sadr seeking less violent strategies. Indeed, the book does a good job of explaining how the Sunni turn against the extremists was facilitated by the Surge--that the new counter-insurgency strategy provided more security so Iraqis could split from the extremists and the new strategy also focused on doing exactly that--turning the more moderate elements against the more extreme.
But, as the book acknowledges, the justification of the surge was two-fold. It was a desperate effort to risk a lot to prevent defeat and it was supposed to provide a window for political changes that might lead to a more stabile situation. The gamble, then, half-succeeded. It did lead to short term violence--the first several months were very bad for the American troops, but it did produce significant progress in establishing order throughout much of the country. BUT all of the hard political questions were not resolved. And helping/using the Sunni Sons of Iraq was a gamble as well, as the effort may end up being the prologue to a real civil war.
The book is most instructive about how things played out, and how much more time and effort is needed to make Iraq a semi-decent place. And that time is running out. I found it also useful to see parallels between Iraq of 2007 and Afghanistan now. July 2009 is the worst month for US/ISAF casualties since 2001. Much of this is due to the increased number of troops and activity in Helmand, but there have also been bombings and other kinds of attacks throughout the country. If we are lucky, then this may be a temporary increase, just as violence peaked during the surge in Iraq.
Indeed, I am starting to return to my Jan 2008 thinking--that Afghanistan may yet be more promising than Iraq. Clear, hold and build may work better where there is a single, highly corrupt government and the interventionist neighbor is Pakistan than in Iraq where there is a corrupt government but essentially two or three militaries (the Iraqi forces, the Sons of Iraq, and the Shiite militias) and the interventionist neighbor is Iran.
The book is best at pointing out the tradeoffs and risks that leaders face. Obama was dealt a very difficult hand in both countries, and now must make the best of it. As poker teaches me again and again, even if the probabilities are in your favor (and I am not sure sure they are in the US favor in either country), it only means that you are more likely to win. Losing is still quite possible, even if one keeps re-defining victory to lower the bar.